“Of all men distrust most the man who tries to incite one set of Americans against another set of Americans.”
– Theodore Roosevelt
“Get in line, and we’ll take care of you with free stuff.”
That’s how presidential candidate Jeb Bush characterized the Democratic Party’s message to black and Latino voters in a recent speech.
The Republican contender joined a long list of Republican presidential candidates in United States history in sounding the age-old racial dog whistle when he asserted that black voters are just looking for handouts from the government.
Never mind the irony of a man who inherited an obscene amount of wealth, privilege, and power from his parents weighing in on “free stuff.” Jeb’s public words were more disturbing because they continued the longtime Republican pastime of securing political votes by trashing African Americans who are fighting poverty.
To be clear, what Jeb said was not a “gaffe.” It was the sounding of a well-calculated racial dog whistle to help boost his low Republican poll numbers.
This tried-and-trusted idea was hatched by Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater with his coded racial appeals, developed extensively by Republican President Richard Nixon and his “Southern Strategy,” and perfected by Republican President Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen,” portraying non-white women as lazy schemers who loved to take advantage of the government rather than working.
Whenever GOP poll numbers need a quick bump, the dog whistle and racial code words come out.
A little dog whistle — “free stuff,” “entitlement society,” “state’s rights,” “food stamps,” “law and order”– comes in handy because even the most craven politicians in this day and age know they can’t be outright racist. The dog whistle compliments the real hardcore racist dirty work that is done mostly anonymously on social media through millions of racist cartoons, memes, forum postings, and more (see cartoon below).
The “free stuff” dog whistle is built on the foundation of a great lie. Somehow a significant portion of the United States population is convinced that despite the obscene trillions of dollars spent on Middle Eastern quagmires, corporate welfare, tax havens, corporate subsidies, government contracts, tax loopholes for billionaires … it’s the relative pennies we spend on little brown or black kid getting a free or reduced-cost lunch that is single-handedly ruining this country.
So, let’s talk “free stuff” facts. The states with the highest number of welfare recipients are huge red states. The Food Stamp Capital of the United States – Owsley County, Kentucky — is 99.2 percent white and 95 percent Republican. In South Carolina, where Bush was speaking, five of the seven congressional districts have a greater percentage of white households than black on food stamps, as of March of this year. All of them are represented by Republicans.
Further, the majority of the recipients of our United States programs and “free stuff” have always been white seniors, retirees, women, and children, and white workers. Yet these programs have been geniusly and artfully sold to many Americans as handouts to lazy blacks and Latinos in order to secure Republican votes.
For example, our American seniors – overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly conservative — are receiving far, far more in Medicare benefits than they pay in taxes. Today’s typical Medicare beneficiary will have paid into the system just 13 percent to 41 percent of his or her expected Medicare consumption. The rest is funded by payroll taxes paid by today’s working Americans.
So, if we want to truly talk about “free stuff.” We spent $603 billion on Medicare last year, a number that will soon balloon to $1.04 trillion in 2024. Seniors – largely white and largely conservative – are taking 5, 6, 7 times out what they put in are bankrupting our country and helping add to our massive national debt.
But the old white person as a parasite does NOT make for good GOP campaign speeches and literature. For some reason, the paltry $125 a food stamp recipient receives does. I think we all understand why.
While many Americans misunderstand who gets the “free stuff,” they are also mistaken on the amount we get. Despite commonly held beliefs, we have shrunk our free stuff down to a tiny percentage compared to what other equivalent countries get out of their governments. Citizens in much of Europe, for example, have generous paid family leave, free child care, free university education and inexpensive (and universal) health coverage, all paid for through taxes.
So, next time somebody posts a meme about an “ObamaPhone” on Facebook, I’m going to ask you to do a few things. First, do the research to understand that an “ObamaPhone” is actually a “ReaganPhone.” And then ask yourself: What is the agenda? What is somebody trying to hide? Why am I demonizing the poor? Why am I letting unfounded fear allow the 1 percent to continue to tear up the fabric of social safety net? What important issues are my politicians NOT talking about when they lazily sound the dog whistle instead?
Trillion-dollar wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, huge tax breaks for the wealthy and big corporations, a prescription drug program written by the pharmaceutical industry, $21 trillion in corporate tax evasion, and the deregulation of Wall Street got the United States in the economic problems we now face, not a poor black child needing food. Poor people did not make the middle class wages decline, health care costs and college tuition skyrocket, and mid-wage jobs disappear.
As somebody who has seen people in poverty up close quite a bit, I can tell you that it is a very rough existence. Living life with no money, no safety net, and small prospects for advancement is daunting and demanding and stressful and demoralizing. It takes a constant toll on a person mentally, physically, emotionally and psychologically. To suggest that people want to purposely live in this existence is almost as insane as suggesting that the tiny percentage we spend on a simple safety net for our nation’s most vulnerable is the cause of all of our nation’s problems.
The dog whistle can only live on if it works. It’s time for it to go away.